COVID-19 national volunteer scientist database provides free help for clinical laboratories
Through an online organizing effort, a new community of nearly 10,000 volunteer scientists has formed to offset the strain on clinical laboratory staff during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Harvard researcher Michael F. Wells, PhD, initiated this unique resource—the COVID-19 National Scientist Volunteer Database. Wells, a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University, has spent the past five years studying RNA viruses with a focus on the Zika virus and how an individual’s genetics influence their disease process. The COVID-19 STAT Intelligence Briefings Service spoke with Wells to learn more about how the national scientist volunteer database program began, and how clinical laboratories can access the resources it provides.
“It started as I was walking home the day that our lab was shut down, when the initial lockdowns started,” Wells said. “We had until noon to get out of the building, and on the walk home I thought ‘as scientists, we should organize and put ourselves in a situation so that if we’re called upon we’ve already done all the grunt work—identifying our strengths, knowing where we’re located, how much education and experience we have.’ I wanted all that information in one place.”
Wells said his own background helped him to understand and anticipate the national strain on clinical laboratory professionals as a result of COVID-19. “I’m from Columbus, Ohio, and I knew that there would be a lot of places in the middle of the country without three or four of the top institutions in the world within a 2-mile radius of each other,” Wells explained. “I wanted to make sure we had a system of identifying scientists in places like Indiana, Mississippi, and Kansas, and all these different places, so that if scientists were needed there we could quickly identify them and deploy them as needed.”
The volunteer scientist database grew very quickly, according to Wells, with 7,000 signups within less than a week. The number of scientists that have volunteered has continued to grow since then, reaching a total of almost 10,000 scientists across the country.
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The COVID-19 National Scientist Volunteer organization has also grown without any capital or income, said Wells. “We’ve spent a total of $13.95 on the organization for the domain name for our website. Everything we’ve done has been volunteer. We have not taken any money; we will not take any money.” While Wells explained that the scientists have volunteered for free, some companies have chosen to compensate them or extended offers of employment after they had initially volunteered.
“We now have a team of about a hundred volunteers that are helping with coordination and volunteer deployment,” Wells told STAT COVID-19. “We manage the organization through Slack and Zoom. Most of the people we work with at the national level are people I had never met before. We all just came together around this common goal and have been working together ever since.”
Response Rapidly Expands Volunteer Medical Scientist Organization
Wells explained that the scope of the organization has expanded significantly, compared to his initial intentions. “The original intent of the database was to identify scientists who could help with COVID-19 testing,” Wells related. “So these are people who primarily have expertise in PCR and ELISA and the different techniques people use to run diagnostic or surveillance tests. We naively thought that the regulations around deploying people into clinical testing sites would be relaxed across the board at a national level. However, that didn’t happen outside of California and Louisiana.”
Wells explained that the experience and training of the volunteer scientists vary, but many have the RNA extraction and qPCR experience needed to run COVID-19 tests.
The COVID-19 National Scientist Volunteer Database has provided assistance to test sites and testing facilities, said Wells. These volunteers have assisted with many other tasks, including assisting businesses with reopening plans and providing data visualization assistance. The COVID-19 volunteer scientist database was even used to players in the cosmetic industry to function safely.
While not every volunteer may be able to assist with clinical testing, many of the professionals who have volunteered can help clinical laboratories with COVID-19 testing or by providing expert advice. Their services are free to clinical laboratories, and clinical lab leaders can access their services by applying for access to the database (free) through the organization’s website, https://covid19sci.org.
Clinical laboratories can use the covid19sci.org resource to help offset the strain of personnel demands and to access experts that may normally not be available. Clinical laboratory leaders may also be able to recommend the COVID-19 National Scientist Volunteer Database to partners in their communities who need support.
Moreover, this new volunteer database provides a way for clinical laboratory leaders, pathologists, and clinical scientists to give back to others and help them in the fight against COVID-19. The COVID-19 National Scientist Volunteer Database is still registering new volunteers, especially in the clinical laboratory field. Those who wish to do so can quickly and easily volunteer by filling out the form provided on the organization’s website.
—By Caleb Williams, Editor, COVID-19 STAT